Terroir

February 28, 2010

No, this post has nothing to do with homeland security. “Terroir” is a French word for a concept that is common throughout European food culture. It refers to the peculiar taste and quality imparted to food and drink from the soils and climate in which it is produced. We can fantasize about that in the veggies we get from Thornapple CSA, but terroir is particularly important for fine wines and cheeses. Learning to fully appreciate their flavor requires that one acquire the ability to taste and smell traces imparted by the clays and minerals that are first dissolved by groundwater, then incorporated into the milk or grape.

I got first hand experience with terroir on a business trip to Toulouse about ten years ago. My group was visiting the agricultural college there, and a student club threw a wine and cheese tasting party for us. We sat there for at least three hours working our way through a dozen different settings of wine and cheese. Each setting included a wine that had been selected by he students and two or three cheeses that had be chosen by a local fromagier.

With all respect to the fantastic job done by Hills Cheese at the Lansing City Market, we don’t have anything like a fromagier here in Lansing. The fromagier does more than stock and sell cheese. Fromagiers travel all over France sampling and buying “green” cheeses that have been made in small batches on a very local basis, sometimes from a single farm. The fromagier’s art consists in ripening these cheeses in just the right conditions, conditions that sometimes include inculcation of specific molds that are a crucial part of bringing the cheese to its peak.

Our fromagier presided over our wine and cheese tasting party like the conductor of a symphony orchestra, providing commentary on the source and character of each cheese we tasted. He instructed us to be alert for distinctive notes in the flavors of the cheeses. Our French hosts had great fun with this, sarcastically challenging him to help them determine whether the grass the cows (or goats) had been eating was on the windward or leeward side of the hill. As for myself, three hours of nothing but cheese, wine and the occasional bite of bread to cleanse the palette was a bit of a challenge to my digestive system. But it was a fantastic experience, even if I’m not sure I’d want to repeat it.

Many of these cheeses are unpasteurized, which means that the Food and Drug Administration will not allow them to be sold in the United States. Another part of the fromagier’s art lies in knowing how far to go with the microorganisms that contribute to the ripening process. Too far and the wonderful terroir in those raw cheeses becomes lethal. There are a few deaths every year in France from eating unpasteurized cheese.

Which reminds me of another experience years ago in Washington DC when I heard a lobbyist for the biotechnology industry berating a French food safety official who had been explaining why they were applying the precautionary principle in refusing to approve the introduction of genetically engineered crops. The precautionary principle states:

When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.

The biotech lobbyist was challenging the French official to explain why he did not apply the precautionary principle to those unpasteurized cheeses, the pride (with their wines) of French cuisine.

The official’s answer: “Well, everybody knows that’s dangerous.”

If you think about it, it makes perfect sense. We might need to bear a little risk in enjoying the height of flavor and local color in an artisanal food. We just need to know that that is the case. As for the lobbyist, he remains terroirified by the very thought of raw cheese.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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